- Before Duncan Robinson was a key player in Michigan's run to the 2018 Final Four, he played at a small Division III liberal arts school in rural Massachusetts, and the 6'8" forward still shares an long-lasting bond with his former teammates.
There was this thing that Duncan Robinson would do, four years ago, when he was a 19-year-old freshman basketball player at Williams College, a tiny, elite Division III liberal arts school, with a student population of just over 2,000, in the Berkshire Mountains of rural, northwestern Massachusetts. Williams freshmen, like D-III freshmen everywhere, are asked to help with menial support duties, and before away games, Robinson took it upon himself to carry trainer Lisa Wilk’s heavy bag of supplies from the bus to the locker room, along with his own bag. After games, he would carry it back to the bus. It was a heavy bag, about 50 pounds of tape and wrap and other supplies. Sometimes Robinson would fight off fellow freshman Dan Aronowitz to carry the bag. This muling was a small act, but something that everyone at Williams seems to recall as quintessential Robinson. When he decided to leave Williams after his one season, some of his friends made a funny, "Please Stay, Duncan" video in which they put little water droplets on Wilk’s face to make it appear as if she was weeping.
This weekend Robinson, a 6'8" senior forward, will play for Michigan in the Final Four, first against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday evening and then, potentially, in the national championship game on Monday night. The Final Four, past and present, is a cascade of remarkable stories. Michigan’s next opponent, for one, is this year’s Cinderella. Robinson’s personal tale is well-known enough that announcers can dispense with it in four words: The Division III transfer.
But it’s more than that. Robinson is a unicorn: A player who transferred from D-III, not just to D-I, but to the highest level of D-I, a contending program in a power five conference, and with a full scholarship in hand from the beginning. He then became a starter in his first year of eligibility and has scored more than 1,000 points. When he steps on the court Saturday, he will become a subset of one—the first player to participate in both the Division I and Division III basketball Final Fours. (And he won’t just participate; he will be the first Michigan player off the bench, averaging more than 25 minutes and almost nine points a game in the tournament.)
This is why, when I talked to Robinson earlier this week, as he walked across the Michigan campus, and asked him about Lisa Wilk, his voice was at first rote: “I was a freshman, and I tried to help out wherever I could,” he said, “That bag was too heavy for Lisa.” He has told his story endless times, but not this part. So then, after a pause, his voice turned wistful. “That seems like forever ago,” said Robinson, with an audible sigh. It was, of course, forever ago. And it also wasn’t.
Inside every story about the one who leaves, there is a story of those who were left behind. For every athlete who moves up, and on, there is a story of those who did not, and of the endless connection between the two.
On the afternoon of March 22, 2014, Williams played Wisconsin-Whitewater in the D-III national championship game, in Salem, Va. Williams had advanced to the title game with a resounding 98-69 victory over rival Amherst in the semifinals, after Amherst had dealt the Ephs three of their four regular-season losses. Robinson was the star of that semifinal win, with 30 points on 13-for-18 shooting, including 4-for-6 from beyond the three-point line. With seven seconds left in the title game, Robinson missed a well-defended 12-footer in the lane, but teammate Michael Mayer, a first-team D-III All-America center, tipped in the miss to give Williams a one-point lead. Whitewater’s Quardell Young then took the inbounds pass and went 70 feet in a blur for a game-winning lay-up. Robinson was the last of five Williams players with a shot at Young, each of them half-challenging, half stepping back.
“You think you’ve won,’’ said Robinson this week. “Then all of sudden I’m picking the ball up in transition and I didn’t want to foul so I just kind of Ole-d and he got to the rim.’’ Robinson missed a desperation 40-footer at the buzzer; nobody knew at the time that it would be his last try as a Division III player.
After the game, Williams coach Mike Maker was asked about the team’s future. “We’ve got the best Division III player in the country,” said Maker.
Robinson’s classmate Aronowitz says, “We were planning to go on and win more games than any class in Williams history, play in three more Final Fours, win two or three more national championships. We talked about it all the time.”
It did not happen that way. Three months after that brutal championship game loss, Maker took his 147-32, six-year record at Williams (.821 winning percentage) and three Final Four appearances to Division I Marist. Six weeks later, with Maker’s assistance and encouragement, Robinson signed with Michigan. It was a dizzying time in his life, but on this central point, Robinson has never wavered. “It wasn’t until coach Maker took the Marist job that I decided to look into things,” he said this week. “I was staying at Williams for four years. I loved it there.”
Mike Greenman, a point guard who entered Williams with Aronowitz and Robinson in the fall of 2013, and was Robinson’s freshman roommate, says, “From March to August, it was amazing how quickly things changed. Like flipping a switch."
The ensuing four years have told a story of soaring, unprecedented success by an athlete who challenged himself to reach beyond his immediate grasp and chased a dream. But also it is the story of a coach whose decision compelled the player’s, but who did not experience similar success and now is unemployed, and of friends and teammates who struggled with Robinson’s departure even while embracing his new career. And Robinson knew it then, and knows it now. “I try to be a compassionate person,” he says. “I know my decision affected so many other people, and it’s impossible to ignore those implications.”
Understand: It’s all good. It’s always been good, really, just a little messy at times. When Robinson takes the floor Saturday night, at least four of his former Williams teammates will be in the crowd at the Alamodome. “Duncan is carrying the flag for all of the guys in Division III who thought maybe we could have played in Division I,” says Dan Wohl, who was two years ahead of Robinson at Williams. “That, and just pure joy for Duncan, watching him out there.”
A narrative arc like Robinson’s unfolds in a thousand places. But start here: in the gym at Brandeis University in the spring of 2012, during a tryout camp for high school basketball players with superior academic records. Robinson was there, having completed four seasons at Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass., and was preparing for a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy. He was a 6'6" and weighed less than 170 pounds but moved fluidly and shot like a machine. Mike Maker was there. “I thought of him as a baby [Mike] Dunleavy,” says Maker. “I fell in love with him. I recruited him hard.”
Robinson committed to Williams in the fall of 2012. That winter he led Exeter to a New England prep school title, but still was not pursued by Division I teams. "There was no doubt in my mind that he could play in the Ivy League, at least," says Maker. "He fell through the cracks. That happens sometimes."
Robinson’s first year was the freshman’s roller coaster. He started out dominating pickup games in ancient Lasell Gym, a bandbox with a running track overhead. Williams was an established D-III program, with rotation players who had all gotten Division I looks before falling off radars or opting for a Williams degree and a chance to play for national titles. “We had good players, and the older guys wanted to show Duncan what was up in our program,” says Mayer, who graduated in 2014, played a year of professional basketball in Spain and now is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Tufts. “But he was torching them, making threes with guys up in his face. Not every day, but often enough.”
Wohl, who also played a year as a professional, in Israel, and now works in business development and government affairs for Tesla, says, “he had an incredible first month, and then for whatever reason, not so well for a month or so. He was a freshman.” (Wohl, as a 6'5" wing, was also intensely competitive with Robinson, an edge that remains to this day, blanketed by a tight friendship).
After the first formal practice of that year, Robinson thanked Maker for working with him. He did it again after the second and the third. Maker called Jay Tilton, Robinson’s coach at Exeter. “Yeah,” said Tilton. “He’s going to keep doing that.” Early in the season, Maker read a story in Robinson’s hometown paper, in which Robinson was quoted as saying that, as a freshman, he didn’t want to step on too many toes. Maker called Robinson into his office and said, “Step on toes. We need you to step on toes.”
(An aside: I am a Williams graduate and was a benchwarmer on the basketball team a long time ago. Hence, I follow the program a little bit. In that winter of 2014, I went to see Williams play Trinity in Hartford, near my home. Williams won the game by 20 points, but Robinson scored only seven points and shot 1-for-5 from three. He did not stand out. But that was just one game. My only strong memory from the night was identifying Robinson by name, just a little too loudly, to my wife, only to see Robinson’s mom turn and look right at us. Lesson: Never say names out loud at youth sports or in cavernous, nearly empty Division III gyms because you’re likely sitting near a parent.)
Robinson got better and more assertive as the season unfolded. His teammates began to understand his potential. One night Robinson and Greenman went to the gym for a late night shooting session. “This guy is like, 6'7", and we’re shooting threes, and he hasn’t missed a shot in 10 minutes,” says Greenman. “I remember saying to some of the other guys afterward, ‘What is Duncan even doing here?'" They lived together in Williams Hall, a century-year-old, L-shaped, four-story building that formed half of what generations of Williams students have called the freshman quad. “We would go back to our room and play FIFA and talk about basketball and life,” says Greenman. “He was my best friend. He is my best friend.”
The work ethic was evident. Robinson not only shot at night with Greenman, but he played one-on-one at night with Wohl. “At that point in my life, I was obsessed with basketball,’’ says Wohl. “And Duncan loved it more than I did.”
Maker’s departure rocked the program, but it wasn’t entirely novel. Six years earlier Dave Paulsen left to become head coach at Bucknell and has since moved on to George Mason. Some coaches stay for a lifetime at top D-III jobs like Williams (or others), some find new challenges irresistible. Not long after Maker signed his five-year deal with Marist, news broke that Robinson was re-opening his recruitment. Maker had worked as an assistant under Michigan coach John Beilein at West Virginia and gave Robinson a strong recommendation.
Robinson talked through the process with his Williams friends. “He called me before he went to Michigan for his visit,” says Wohl. “I said, ‘Look, as your teammate, I want you to stay at Williams. But as your friend, if they offer you a scholarship, you can’t turn it down.’”
Greenman says, “I talked to him a lot that summer. We were on vacation together a little while before he decided. Basically, ‘Look man, we’re really gonna miss you, but this is an unbelievable opportunity.’”
The team kept in touch via group emails. In early August, Robinson weighed in, saying, as Aronowitz recalls, “It’s always been my goal to play at the highest level.” So they knew. “We knew, he was going,” says Aronowitz, who graduated from Williams last spring and is corporate development intern for Hawthorne Gardening Company in Port Washington, N.Y.
The next year, under first-year coach Kevin App, a Cornell graduate who had been an assistant under Maker five years earlier, Williams went 15-10. Wohl, who been a guard/wing, took over Robinson’s spot at the four and carried the team for long stretches. Greenman stayed at the point and Aronowitz became a starter. “We weren’t a very good team,” says Greenman. “I remember saying to Dan [Aronowitz] a few times, ‘Can you imagine how good we would be if Duncan was still here?’” They were 15-10 again the following year, and again missed the NCAA tournament. Greenman missed the entire season with a foot injury; Aronowitz became a star. Both Aronowitz (1,362 points) and Wohl (1,268) would become all-time Williams greats in Robinson’s absence.
And have no pity for the Ephs: Last year they went back to the Final Four with Aronowitz and Greenman leading a sophomore-laden team. This year, with Greenman taking a fifth year, they won the New England Small College Conference title and scored a virtual No. 1 seed in the D-III tournament before getting upset in the second round. The program will be fine.
To be sure, it would have been different had Robinson stayed. “It’s inevitable that you would wonder what if,” says Aronowitz. “But not for a second did any of us feel any reservations about Duncan getting this amazing opportunity, which he earned every bit of.”
It was hardest for Greenman, who came to Williams as a 5'7" point guard with the face and body of a 14-year-old, but a mature game and toughness to match. Robinson was his freshman roommate, a touchstone in most lives, and then he was gone. “It stung,” says Greenman. “We came in here and we both started and we both played 30 minutes a game and we did everything together. He was my guy and in college, as a freshman, that’s such a huge thing. And all of sudden he’s not there, and my coach is not there. It was hard.”
Maker has had the toughest four years of all. He took over a Marist program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2008 and hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1987. His teams went 28-97 (.224) and never finished higher than 10th in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. He had been given a five-year contract that was eventually extended to seven, but was fired in February, after four seasons. (It was a much more difficult time in other ways for Maker, as well; after his first season in Poughkeepsie, Maker’s and his wife Erica’s second son, Declan, was born prematurely, after 24 weeks, and lived just 30 days.)
Maker says he is not done coaching. “They have to pay me for three years, so we’re going to be very selective about the next job,” says Maker. “But I have a lot of coaching left in me.”
He is older, at 52, than his Williams players, and looks back on that pivotal summer of 2014 with a grown man’s distance. “I don’t have any regrets about Duncan leaving Williams,” says Maker. “And you’re talking to someone who loves Williams. Those kids had much more influence on me than I had on them, every day. But Duncan did the right thing for him. His career is a great story, but you know what? Duncan is where he belongs.”
As for the coach who sent Robinson on his journey: “My dream was to coach Division I basketball. It was something I needed to do, just like Duncan needed to leave Williams and go to Michigan.”
In the four years since Robinson left Division III, he has lived a novel of athletic experiences. While sitting out a year as a transfer, he often felt overwhelmed by the pure physical talent around him. “I’m not sure I was a plus-athlete, even in Division III,” says Robinson. “Up here, everybody is bigger, stronger… and the game moves much faster.” But then he started 27 of 36 games as a redshirt sophomore and made 45% of his threes. The number has fallen each year, until this year, as a fifth-year senior, he was removed from the starting lineup in January, in favor of freshman Isaiah Livers, who is absolutely a plus-athlete.
Wohl visited Robinson in Ann Arbor shortly after the benching. “He felt like his last season was slipping away,” says Wohl. On a Friday night, they went to Crisler Arena for a workout, along with Harry Rafferty, a close friend of Robinson’s from Exeter who went on to play at Wesleyan, one of Williams’s rivals. The three of them played rotating games of one-on-one. Wohl would remember similar games at Williams, where they often played in semi-darkness in a facility that officially closed at 10 p.m. "At Crisler,” says Wohl, “all the lights were on."
Throughout Robinson’s Michigan career, with all its peaks and valleys, he has maintained close contact with his Williams friends. “He’s never missed a beat in terms of staying loyal to all his old friends,’’ says Aronowitz. Earlier this winter, Aronowitz helped Robinson get his first victory on Fortnite, the immensely popular online video game. "I’m really not that good at Fortnite," says Robinson. "But Dan Aronowitz is incredible at it, so I rode his coattails to a couple victories."
During one summer get-together, Robinson dogged Greenman by explaining to him that this entire scenario was his fault. It seems Greenman had saved Williams with unconscious three-point shooting in two games late in that 2014 season. “If you hadn’t done that,” Robinson explained, “Maybe we don’t get a good seed in the NCAA tournament and we don’t go to Salem and coach Maker doesn’t get the Marist job and I don’t go to Michigan.” They all laughed at that one.
Last weekend Wohl and two of Robinson’s Exeter teammates were in attendance when Michigan won the West Regional at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. When Robinson made a three-point dagger to give Michigan a 10-point lead late in the game, Wohl says he leaped out of his seat—clad in Michigan gear—and let out a “primal scream.” Robinson has turned the loss of his starting position into the best basketball of his career; he was named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year. Since his benching, he has shot 41% from three and become a reliable, almost inspirational defender, when defense had been his one glaring weakness. When I asked if it can now be said, unequivocally, that transferring to Michigan was the right decision, Robinson said, “I made the choice that was meant for me to make.”
Robinson says that his career won’t end with the Final Four. “I want to keep playing as long as I possibly can,” he said. Maker thinks there is place in the NBA for a 6'8" shooter with range. “He does something better than anybody else in the world,” says Maker, “and that’s shoot the basketball. But he’s not just a shooter, he’s a basketball player.” (It annoys Maker to see Robinson described in terms like “floor-spacer,” as if his only job is to draw defenders from the lane.)
Maker will be in San Antonio. Aronowitz, Greenman and Wohl are planning to be there, too, along with other friends from both Williams and Exeter. They will see when Robinson is open and implore that his teammates pass him the ball. They will squirm when he lets it fly and the ball arcs toward an uncertain fate. It’s the end of a journey, not just for Robinson, but for all of them as well. "I’m living through Duncan now, a little bit," says Greenman. "I tell him, 'Hey, we did this together.'"
One year together, four years apart. Teammates forever.